Title: Solomon’s Request
Texts: Psalm 111, 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58
Date: August 16, 2009
Author: Tom Lehman
Psalm 111 was read a few minutes ago; it is an acrostic. After the opening “Praise to the Lord” there are 22 lines, each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (Waltner) Whether this reflects the author’s great literary gifts or his playfulness is not known.
The opening words in the passage from 1 Kings also deserve comment: “Then David slept with his ancestors.” What a beautiful, poetic way to report his death. David takes his place in the history of God’s people.
My third and last note on the texts is that when the Psalm says that we are to fear the Lord, the word “fear” is archaic, and better understood as “to express awe and reverence for the Lord.” You will hear this phrase in a different translation in a moment.
A standard definition of wisdom is “the superior judgment and understanding that are based on both knowledge and experience.” (OAD) This definition describes a purely human activity; there is no appeal to a higher authority. Though the definition says something useful, it does not point to the wisdom needed for Christian living. Let’s look at Scripture.
Except for the Gospel, our passages today all argue for wisdom. Here they are:
First from Psalm 111: “How wonderful are the things the Lord does! All who are delighted with them want to understand them…The way to become wise is to honour the Lord; he gives sound judgement to all who obey his commands.” (GNSB)
From Solomon’s request in 1 Kings 3:
9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’
Further in 1 Kings 3 God answers Solomon’s request in these words:
12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind.
And from Ephesians 5:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
These passages clearly lead us in the desired direction, but there is another wisdom tradition that we need to consider. Wisdom personified as a woman is a literary creation; the idea can be traced back as far as an ancient Near Eastern goddess; some scholars see a female image of wisdom as an attribute of Israel’s God. (Greg Goering) Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom. The Hebrew and Greek words for wisdom are feminine. (Patty Shelly) Likewise for German and French today. This should please the ladies.
The Old Testament is very male-dominated, or patriarchal. So it is surprising to find repeated references to wisdom as a feminine figure in the book of Proverbs:
Proverbs 1:20 reads “Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.”
Proverbs 3:13-18 and chs 8 & 9 add to the literature. Here is 3:13-18…
13Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour.
17Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Proverbs 31 offers a famous ode to a capable wife. Verse 26 reads: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
Note that Proverbs repeatedly joins wisdom to peace and kindness. That profound connection is missed in secular views of wisdom.
The wisdom of today’s passages directs us to live as God would have us live; the deepest mysteries of the world are not the big concern here. Wisdom is knowing how to honor God through our lives. Micah said it memorably in Ch 6, verse 8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It is not necessary to see wisdom as a path to absolute truth. A fine book entitled “When Religion becomes Evil” (Charles Kimball, HarperCollins, 2002) has a chapter on the evils of absolute truth claims. Thus humility is always important for the believer.
Our Ephesians passage gives us a straightforward NT understanding of wisdom: it is that “we are to understand what the will of the Lord is.” The great ideas that the philosophers have been debating and refining for twenty-five centuries are not the focus of attention here.
Consider James Ch. 3:13-18: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for* those who make peace.” Wisdom is again linked to a peaceful manner and to purity and gentleness.
The uniquely Christian understanding of wisdom is that we see it as a gift from God, and not fundamentally as a human creation. We seek wisdom, but God grants it. We reach toward God, and God reaches toward us. This is made very clear in today’s passage from Ephesians, which I quote again: “We are to understand what the will of the Lord is.” Thus our quest is not that of the philosopher, who hopes to find wisdom in his writings and those of his predecessors and contemporaries, but that of the seeker, who believes that God’s wisdom can be known to some extent.
Is there a uniquely Mennonite/Anabaptist view of wisdom? I am not sure, but if there is, one element of it is surely that wisdom emerges from listening to each other as we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our Psalm speaks of being “in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”
For us, wisdom does not generally come from the mind of one predominant leader, even though some would cast John Howard Yoder in that role.
Rarely, if ever, would we say that wisdom comes to a person all at once. You may not think of our Congregational Life Meetings as outpourings of wisdom, but each such meeting challenges us to make wise decisions, and we often do.
The insufficiency of the individual and the importance of counting on each other were well stated by Dave Nickel in his sermon on July 5, from which I lift these lines:
“Jesus sends the disciples out two by two. Each disciple will not be allowed to rely on his own strength. In these journeys, the disciples will rely on one another.”
That can serve as well to set the direction for our quest for Godly wisdom; none of us is sufficient to work it out alone. Our chances are much better if, like good Mennonites, we go at it by listening to others in the community.
In summary, here are some elements of Biblical wisdom:
1. It starts with awe and reverence for the Lord; the wisdom we seek is far beyond purely human reach, and requires the action of the Holy Spirit.
2. It involves wise use of one’s time.
3. It is developed interactively when we listen to other believers.
4. We may never claim full wisdom, and we do not need to; “For now we see through a glass darkly,” as St. Paul so memorably said. He added “Now I know only in part.”
5. Even our partial knowledge might not stand the test of time. Some thinkers say we are in a post-modern era, a time when everything has its context, and nothing is absolutely or eternally certain.
6. The wisdom we seek is a basis for action, not merely a cause for philosophical reflection. Gaining the wisdom God intends for us changes the way we live.
7. Wisdom, peace, and kindness are strongly associated. This is a message the world, starting in our own country, urgently needs to hear.
8. Any wisdom we have is a gift; the proper response is to give thanks, as today’s Psalm says in verse 1: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.”
Thus far this sermon has consisted of lots of generalities and no apparent take-home message. Is something missing? I have quoted nine passages from seven books of the Bible. There are many more passages that say something about wisdom, but if these nine are a fair sample, then we have learned one more thing about a Biblical view of wisdom: it is a general way of life, not a bunch of little rules that, if followed, somehow add up to wisdom. It is a way of conducting our lives and turning our faith to action that is pleasing to God. This tells us that details don’t have the importance we sometimes attach to them.
In today’s passage from John’s gospel we hear these words: “56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” It is obviously a reference to the institution of communion, cast in the language of high-level spiritualizing that John’s Gospel does so often. To my surprise and delight, wisdom, reverence, and communion all flow together to guide and sustain our lives as believers. Christ gives us part of himself if we will take it, i.e., he nourishes us in the search for wisdom. To say it more crassly – and more memorably – Christ symbolically offers his body to fuel our efforts. Christ wants to enter into not only our thoughts, but also our bodies, so that we might draw strength and wisdom from our understanding of him. Speaking to believers, John concludes, “the one who eats this bread will live for ever.” Amen.